My hunt for a teaching job in China began with battling my way through scores of emails from recruiters and schools. From my home country of England, I’d sent my CV to hundreds of potential employers and received a giant raft of emails in response. This was not because I was a world-class educator, but because there is a plethora of options for those seeking teaching jobs in China. As making an informed decision can be difficult, therefore, I bring you the three most important things to consider before taking a teaching job in China.
I found my first job through a recruiter via a process that was quick, smooth and remarkably easy, but I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. After a few days, I realised my new life was going to be a major challenge.
The greatest lesson I learnt from my experiences when I first arrived in China and my subsequent years living here is that in order to get the right job, it’s vital to know why you’re coming, where you’re going and what kind of institution you’re stepping into. You can typically crack this code with a little understanding of the following three considerations.
While looking for a teaching job in China from far away in England, I fell into a trap that ensnares countless other newbies. In my mind, China was one homogeneous block of mystery and potential adventure, so I simply looked for “a teaching job in China.” I failed to understand that just like in the UK, the teaching positions on offer here vary widely depending on where you are in the country. Just because I was offered what looked like a good job, it didn’t mean the location would be right for me.
Back in the early 2000s when I first started teaching in China, I took a job in Dawufeng, small industrial hovel (and I do not use this word lightly) about an hour away from Tianjin. I found myself to be the only English speaker in town and at least one hour away from the next expat.
While this may be the ideal situation for some, for me it was a major challenge and a barrier to happiness. Had I done a little more research into the location, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job in the first place.
Even though my social life in Dawufeng was less than ideal, the struggles I faced in this aspect of my life were nothing compared to those I found in the actual job. I taught at both the public primary and middle schools, where classes were made up of over 40 students.
In the primary school I had an assistant who spoke some English, but in the middle school I was completely on my own. Even the Chinese teachers who were assigned to teach English could only manage the absolute basics, which I suppose is why they needed me in the first place. The whole situation left me feeling overwhelmed and, at times, desperately unhappy.
Stories like mine are common among foreign teachers who work at China’s public schools and universities, especially in less developed locations. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The job in Dawufeng was clearly not the right fit for me, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t have suited another foreign teacher better. Perhaps one with more patience, one who enjoyed his own company, or one of those types that thrive when out of their comfort zones.
There are two basic things to consider before taking a job at a public school in China: holidays and salary. The salaries in public schools tend to be fairly modest, especially in second and third tier cities or very rural locations. Universities usually pay a little more than schools, and both often provide apartments as part of any package, which frees up a big portion of your income. Also remember that if you’re in a less developed location, the cost of living will be lower.
The flip-side of the modest salaries is that the holidays on offer at China’s public schools are usually luxuriously long, often taking in three summer months and lengthy periods at Spring Festival. This gives foreign teachers plenty of opportunity to travel around China and the wider region.
You typically find two types of foreign teachers working in public education in China. The first are younger teachers with little experience who care less about salary and more about having the time and freedom to explore China during the holidays. The second group is the worthy teachers who really want to make a difference in China’s grassroots education system. These people were perhaps already teachers in their home countries and would probably get on better in Dawufeng than I did. They are probably also keen to soak up all they can about Chinese culture and language, so would relish being “immersed” in a rural location.
China’s private education sector includes private schools, international schools and language training centres. In this sphere, the money is better but the hours are longer and the demands on teachers are greater. Those working at training centres will also find they work their hardest in the evenings, on weekends and during the public holidays.
This is the sector that attracts those happy to work harder for more money. On the back of China’s insatiable demand for English teachers, many of these private schools and companies have grown into major corporations that can offer high salaries and genuine career development opportunities, often rivaling what’s on offer in the West. This sector, therefore, tends to attract mid-career and older educators who are either looking to advance or are already well established. There is also often a migration from the lower end of the market towards the better paid top end, as teachers accrue experience in China.
What I learnt from my Dawufeng experience is that everyone has their own motivations for moving to China to teach, and by not understanding mine and the differences in the jobs available, I found myself in a situation that I did not enjoy. The first and most vital step for those looking to come to China to work as teachers, therefore, is to understand why they are coming and to then seek the job, location and institution that reflects that.